Companies both young and old, local and national, are finding the mountains of the Mat-Su Valley to be plentiful with powder.
Hatcher Pass Mountain Guides submitted permits to begin offering a snowcat and helicopter for ski and snowboard enthusiasts on the Willow side of Hatcher Pass.
Legendary ski filmmakers are also finding their way to the Valley. Steve Jones began Teton Gravity Research with his brother Todd and friends in 1996. In early April, Jones and the TGR crew were back in the Mat-Su Valley filming lines that will appear on their film tour this fall.
“The mountains are for everyone. If we got more people out there, more people will care about it. More people want to protect it and that’s what we need,” said Adam Cuthriell.
Cuthriell along with Bryce and Farley Dean hope to bring snow cat skiing back to Hatcher Pass, and the land they plan to operate away from the road runs and peaks immediately surrounding the Hatcher Pass Lodge.
“We want to minimize the overlap for everyone’s well being,” Cuthriell said.
Hatcher Pass Mountain Guides’ permit had the period for public comment extended through May 2 with the Department of Natural Resources. Cuthriell says that the operation is mainly focused around snowcat skiing, but helicopter bumps will be offered to those that want to ride more challenging terrain. Cuthriell snowboarded professionally for five years, and is excited to bring snow cat skiing back to Hatcher Pass.
“I live, breathe, and eat snowboarding and winter sports has been a big part of my life,” Cuthriell said.
With the Skeetawk ski lift moving forward with construction this year and Hatcher Pass Mountain Guides applying for a permit for next year, the business of powder turns has never been better in the Mat-Su Valley. Teton Gravity Research is based out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but Jones has a fondness of Alaska that has grown over decades of skiing the backcountry.
“Alaska is a very special place and home for us. We started TGR with money that we had made commercial fishing up there in the early 90s, my brother Todd and I, and that’s how we bought our first cameras,” Jones said. “The stoke that we’ve felt, coming from where we come from, you see a lot more people in the backcountry which can add to kind of the stress of the backcountry in terms of dangers with other people potentially skiing down on you… The Alaskan vibe, I think, that we’ve been so enamored by has just been this free spirited, really open arm embrace and sharing of information kind of that want to really be out there and be away from the white noise of society.”
Jones first skied Hatcher Pass in 1995 and described it as an unbelievable experience. Jones mentioned Tommy Moe atop a list of a handful of Alaskan skiers and guides he’s filmed with over the years as he’s watched the evolution of both ski and film technology progress while hanging from helicopters over Alaskan mountain faces.
“It was just magical and it was a really abrupt learning curve because it was just so much different than anything else we had really encountered,” Jones said. “You could load a roll of film in there that lasted three minutes and you had to take the doors off the heli. You were hanging out of the side of the heli, strapped to the heli, trying to rig up systems to keep the camera still. You’re basically hand holding your camera. The lens was fixed and the pilot was a really integral part of helping follow the skier because we didn’t want to have too much movement in it. So pilots had to do some really radical things, now there’s more latitude because the camera systems are so much more sophisticated. You’re inside the heli without the doors off so you know, yeah a lot has changed but it’s been an amazing evolution and journey.”
Jones’ brother Jeremy Jones is currently snowboarding for an Imax film elsewhere in the state, and started Protect Our Winters in 2007. Protect Our Winters is a nonprofit dedicated to mobilizing the snowsports community on climate.
“Jeremy founded Protect Our Winters because of what we had just seen in our lifespan in traveling and specifically over in Chamonix and glacial recession that we had seen over the course of riding there for the first 15 years of traveling and skiing,” Jones said.
Jones specifically mentioned the difference he’s seen just in the last two decades of riding in Alaska.
“The glacial recession that we’ve seen there, I mean we were all of us were up there talking about how different it is. When we first started going up to Alaska, really the prime film season would start after mid April and usually go into early May because we liked that there had been a couple shed cycles but it was still wintery. You’d still get storms, things like that, but now our whole trip, our TGR trip, we were done by April 15. So we’ve kind of bumped everything up you know two to four weeks from when we used to look at when the prime window is, which is you know it’s a little bit kind of scary and concerning,” Jones said.
Jones said that one of the biggest goals that he and his brother have for how to get people invested in climate change is to get them into the backcountry and experience the unbelievable terrain for themselves. Jones said that there has been an increased energy around the sport, especially backcountry enthusiasts.
“People are really coming together based on wanting to preserve it and really seeing some of that change happening,” Jones said.
During his short pit stop in the Valley to film in the surrounding mountain ranges, Jones even caught wind of the Skeetawk ski area in Hatcher Pass.
“I think it’s really cool just to give people a little bit more accessibility and you know it just feels like it’s done, the way that people have explained it to me, where it’s kind of a rootsiness and servicing locals and things like that,” Jones said. “I’m excited about it.”
TGR athlete Griffin Post spoke about some of the nuances and complexities of skiing big mountains in Alaska while on the trip, and Jones said that footage is already being posted to tetongravity.com in anticipation for the film release and film tour.
“This was the first time really basing out of Palmer and we were skiing for us a totally new region in the northern Chugach. We didn’t overlap any of the terrain that we had skied out of the Knik and we’re really pleasantly and beyond impressed with what we found and actually had great weather. We were able to ski a ton and still didn’t remotely exhaust the possibilities that we saw and it was really exciting for us,” Jones said.
Jones was in Thompson Pass when dropping skiers out of a helicopter was introduced, and still has so much more work he wants to do in the Last Frontier.
“There’s more that we want to do in that zone that we were accessing out of Palmer that we just, there was so much that we couldn’t get to,” Jones said. “So I think the exciting thing about Alaska is we still have seemingly endless menu of possibilities.”